When brothers Derick and Steven Martini debuted their first production Lymelife at the 2008 Toronto Film Festival, they found their small indie film surrounded by attention and interest mainly for the dream cast they assembled. In fact, the drama features one of the more amazing ensemble casts assembled for such a low-budget film, many of them doing some of their finest film work.
At its core, it may seem like a somewhat standard indie coming-of-age story centering around Rory Culkin’s Scott Bartlett, a teenager living on Long Island in the ’70s whose family is being torn apart due to the success of his realtor father (Alec Baldwin) and the effects that Lyme disease is having on their community. Scott has had a secret crush on his neighbor Adrianna (Emma Roberts) since they were kids, but their friendship is put to the test when he starts having stronger sexual urges for the popular teen girl, unbeknownst to both that Scott’s father is sleeping with Adriana’s mother (Cynthia Nixon from “Sex and the City”). It’s the way the Martinis relay this suburban tale that makes it unique as well, as the strong performances director Derick Martini pulled from his cast, particularly Tim Hutton and Jill Hennessy from “Crossing Jordan,” the latter making a far-too-rare screen appearance. The Martinis were also able to deliver the unprecedented coup of having Rory Culkin’s real-life older brother Kieran playing Scott’s older brother Jimmy, which brings another layer to their relationship.
ComingSoon.net got on the phone with Derick last week to talk about the movie.
ComingSoon.net: What got the ball rolling on this movie, which you wrote about ten years ago?
Derick Martini: Yeah, I wrote it about nine years ago, something like that. I wrote it after “Smiling Fish,” the first movie that I wrote. In the meantime, after that movie came out, I got a lot of gigs as a writer-for-hire, just doing television and features and things like that. There was a lot of lag time in between actually writing this movie and making this movie, but I wrote it because it was something that was personal and a story that I was compelled to tell. I finally pulled it together with some very small financing, shoe-string budget, it cost a million and a half dollars to make. Shot it in 22 days and was just determined to tell this story in a fresh way. The approach to that was really suburban drama, whatever you call it, has become a genre of its own, so how do you take on that genre and make it fresh? Make it feel different? My opinion is that although I like a lot of its predecessors, my intent was to go for the realism and that comes from performances, so I hyper-focused on the performances of my cast and that’s the thing that I believe separates this from other films of its ilk, that I went for the reality, just the reality. Not contrived plot points, not highly stylized this is what it’s really like for these people during this time. That was my agenda. Then of course, to take every day what was on the page, the written word, and make it better by allowing my actors freedom, once they had their lines memorized.. I think they all thought I was going to be really rigid and a “line Nazi” director, “You have to say it exactly like this” in rehearsals, but the whole idea was to just get they so they were fully prepared then once we were on set, I would change it up. I would just surprise them all the time. I used every trick in the book to surprise theme very single day.
CS: Having come from a theater background, I assume you brought some of that to this?
Martini: Well, yeah, I mean of course. That’s where it all comes from. Theater is a very specific thing, too, depends on what kind of theater you’re talking about, but the theater I’m from is very specific as well (in terms of) blocking and the delivery, but the way I like to do it is that the blocking was always very specific in theater but the delivery and the line, the most important thing from my perspective is that the actors generate organic moments. Every moment is the most important moment in the film for me when I’m sitting there next to the camera, watching them and directing them. Every moment is the most important and making sure that it’s as organic and not having a movie filled with false beats was very important to me. The way I approached that is I get them into a comfort zone and then I take them out of the comfort zone of the lines they’ve memorized and I change it up on them. That’s the best way to do it because then they’re not thinking, they’re just doing, and they’re in the moment. It’s like having a great volley with someone in tennis where it’s just back and forth, back and forth. Obviously, the kind of actors that I have in this picture really embraced that approach, and that’s why I believe the performances are the most important thing of this movie, and that’s what separates this from other pictures. There are other things, too, but this for me was a real performance piece, really really about the actors.
CS: I’m sure you’ve been asked this a lot and I’ll get it out of the way now, but how much of this was based on stuff from your own past? Did you live on Long Island in the ’70s?
Martini: Not in the ’70s. I came of age in the late ’80s, early ’90s, but I did live and grow up on Long Island, and I came of age in the early ’90s but I set it in the ’70s for other reasons. There was a time of this sort of economic boom on the island where lower middle class guys like Mickey, the character Alec Baldwin plays, either Irish-American or Italian-American men–because of this urban sprawling that was going on–were able to jump ahead in class for the first time, and they were able to pursue and chase their version of the American Dream, and then actually attain it. The question always is, “At what cost? At what cost is this dream made of?” That was one reason, and the other reason was that Lyme disease, they didn’t really know what it was. They were just figuring it out, so that’s intrinsic to the story obviously, with Tim (Hutton’s) character. I knew these people growing up. I knew people like Alec. Obviously, it’s based on my own family, and I knew somebody like Tim, a friend of the family had Lyme disease even in the early ’90s. For him, it was unfortunately misdiagnosed, same thing with Tim in the picture. Obviously, the backstory is that he’s been misdiagnosed and doesn’t really know what he has, but this guy I knew was misdiagnosed and wasn’t treated properly, and he wound up in worse shape than Tim in the picture.
CS: The Lyme disease thing is an interesting impetus for the storytelling. We know that these two families have known each other for a long time, and while the movie isn’t necessarily about Lyme disease, that one thing can completely change all their lives and relationships it seems.
Martini: The whole movie’s about change, and that’s again another trap you can fall into with a suburban coming-of-age story. Of course, it’s about change, but in this situation, the Lyme disease is also a metaphor for it’s a corrosive disease borne of innocence, which is really interesting, because the deer is innocent and the deer is the carrier for this disease. A deer’s blood is what causes the disease, and it’s transmitted through a tick. This is a corrosive disease borne of innocence and same thing with the relationships in “Lymelife.” Aside from the hope in the film, which are the two children–Emma and Rory–but Jill and Alec’s relationship is a corrosive relationship born of innocence and same thing with Tim and Cynthia’s relationship. That was that connective tissue for me in my mind always, metaphorically.
CS: Considering the amazing cast you were able to pull together for this one, did you ever consider making it through the studio system or did you feel that would have been too limiting?
Martini: No, I didn’t want to do that because I was working in the studio system, and as a writer, I was just experiencing what that game is. When you’re not Martin Scorsese or Steven Spielberg, and you’re making your first movie, you have seven or eight people telling you how to make it, and I didn’t want to do that, because I wanted to do it my way and tell the story that I wanted to tell. I didn’t even go near the studios with this. It was never intended to be a studio picture.
CS: But with this great cast, you probably could have made the movie for more money if you wanted to by going through a studio.
Martini: You know, we probably could have, but I don’t think we needed to, because part of the idea is that you go out to make this film and you want the best actors that you can get, and I got the best actors that I could get. I think I got some of the best actors working in the business today. I believe Alec is one of the, if not the, best actor of his generation. Hutton is another one that is one of the, if not right up there. He’s underused at this point, unfortunately, but man, the guy is great. Then the younger characters in the movie. Look at Rory Culkin in this movie; he’s like a young Paul Newman. He just does so much with these eyes that you don’t need to have him dribble out a whole sh*tload of dialogue to tell the story. You focus on his eyes and you see what’s going on. The story is told in his eyes, through his eyes, and that was the wonderful thing about this picture is that I got to direct these wonderful actors. That was my favorite part of making the movie, and the way it came together is that they all really liked the script, and that was just it. They all liked the script. They all said, “We’re all in this because we really love the piece and okay, we’re not going to make any money.” But everybody had to bring their A-game, and they did.
CS: I think Jill Hennessy is really the big surprise. She’s done a lot of TV work, and I think she’s really been appreciated as much as other actresses of her generation, and she really knocked one out of the park with this.
Martini: She hit a grand slam, she really did. My approach to directing actors is much different from what she’s used to. She’s been on procedural TV shows, none of which I’ve seen, but I know, because I’ve written for TV. You have to say exactly what’s on the page and this role for her was something she hadn’t done, #1, and #2, my style of directing was something she hadn’t worked with before. She was so used to just memorizing her lines by rote, and then going out and delivering them and walking away but my style of directing was to continually push her. That whole tirade that she unleashes on Alec on that one scene in the kitchen, that was something that was written differently on the page. That was a perfect example where I pulled her aside and just said, “Jill, let’s just forget what’s on the page and let’s think about exactly how you want to make him feel at this point. All this stuff has been building up in you for years. All these things that you’ve ever wanted to say to this guy and make him feel like a complete bag of sh*t, I want you to say.” That style of directing for her was a blessing and she just went out on a limb and knocked it out of the park.
CS: I hope other filmmakers can see what she can do in this movie and try her out for their films.
Martini: Yeah, yeah. I’d cast her in anything, she’s great.
CS: I wanted to ask about your relationship with your brother Steven and how you work with him. There’s a lot of filmmaking duos where they’re co-writers or producer/director–the Coen Brothers are the most obvious one–but your brother also edits and composes. Do you guys work on a lot of that stuff in pre-production?
Martini: Yeah, pretty much we work it out in pre-production. Basically, we co-wrote the script. I direct and while I direct, he assembles. Since we’re shooting in practical locations, and we have to wrap out locations, it was a real advantage for me to have him assembling – cause we were shooting seven pages a day, so we weren’t shooting bits and pieces of scenes, we were shooting the whole scene in that day. That kitchen scene with Alec and Jill was done all in one day, and that was just one scene that we shot on that day. We shot probably three other scenes, so what you’d have is that everything was on the fast track. Every day, he would get a new batch of dailies which were complete scenes, so he would be able to quickly assemble the scenes and if there was something that I had missed, like an insert, or something that he thought would make the scene better, he would call me before we wrapped out that location and say, “Hey, look, this thing came together, but we could really use an insert because of this because I think you’ll want to cut out a part of the scene and if you had an insert or another shot of this, it would really help when we go to do the final edit.” That was our plan going into production, and that worked really well, and then in post-production, he’s a very talented musician, so way way back in pre-production, even before, I based a lot of the shots and the picture on “The 400 Blows,” the Truffaut movie. I really liked how I kept harping on the score of that picture plays against the sentimentality, it doesn’t play with the sentimentality, and I just kept talking about that and talking about that with him. While he was editing, he was composing and he was using that as a reference. When I sat down to do my edit on it, he already pretty much had the score done. It just wasn’t up to picture yet, so when I finished my edit of the picture, he just showed up and had the score done, and it was great. We played with it a little and pared it down a little. I think he’s great to work with. He’s a wonderful editor, he’s a wonderful writer and a terrific musician, and it makes my life easier.
CS: Do you ever see yourselves ever doing any kind of co-direction?
Martini: No, it’s different. There’s one captain on the ship. I don’t believe in the co-directing thing. I think that is something for the Coen Brothers that they do well, and obviously that works for them, but for me, it’s a very intimate, intense relationship that I have with the actors, especially on this picture when you’re doing 22 days. There’s not a minute to hesitate or to give conflicting direction and then try to work that. It wouldn’t have worked on this film and after this film, I just don’t think I could do it on any other film. Although my brother has a lot of input into the picture, it’s still my vision and the cast all looks to me, and that’s the best way to do it. That’s the most efficient and the way to get the best results, in my opinion.
CS: I talked to a lot directors like Zack Snyder who work with their editors and composers in pre-production so it’s an interesting relationship that you do that naturally. Do you think that’s going to be the general way guys you work on future movies, too?
Martini: Yup, yup, that’s the plan.
CS: How did Martin Scorsese get involved as a producer?
Martini: ‘Cause he saw the first movie I did and he really liked it, so he put his name on it as a “Martin Scorsese presents” thing and then on this movie, my agent just sent it to him, and he really liked the script and he said, “I want to Exec. Produce this” and if I had to choose one filmmaker that I really idolize and I’m inspired by, it’s him, so it’s a no-brainer for me to have the support of Martin Scorsese is like having the support of The Pope in my opinion.
CS: Did he offer any thoughts on the film while you were making it or just let you do what you wanted to do?
Martini: He lets me do what I want to do, but he looks at cuts and then that’s when he has ideas more or less. He shoots his own movies and he’s got so much going on that he’s not the kind of guy that’s going to show up on set and talk to you about where you should put the camera, but he is the type of guy who is going to look at your cut and then he’s going to give you his ideas on how to make it better.
CS: Anything else coming up? I read somewhere that you’re adapting “A View From the Bridge.”
Martini: Yeah, I adapted a version of “A View From the Bridge” which we’ll be shooting this summer.
CS: There’s a very famous Sidney Lumet version of the play.
Martini: You know what? I won’t even look at it. Nope, nope, I’m avoiding it. I adapted my version of the script and Sidney Lumet is one of my idols, but I don’t want to see it until I’m done with my version. I just don’t want to fall into any traps. I want to make it as pure as possible.
CS: So you’re going back to the Arthur Miller text mostly?
Martini: I went to the Miller play and I really used a lot of I mean, how do you rewrite Arthur Miller? You don’t. What you do is you take what he did and you make it cinematic, because a lot of that play is contained. So what I did was go in there. The screenplay credit should go to Arthur Miller, because I used his words and all I did was open it up and make it cinematic on the page, and now my job is to go and make it even more cinematic on film, and get great performances from my actors.
CS: I know that you already have Anthony LaPaglia on board; have you already started rounding out the rest of the cast?
Martini: I’m not at liberty to say who’s in it yet, but yes, I’ve gotten to them.
CS: Is this being done independently as well?
Martini: Totally independently. We raised the money and we’re going out and shooting it.
Lymelife opens in New York on Wednesday, April 8 and in L.A. on April 17.